UTPB biology professor pens biography of Jackson relative

Although he has an extensive background in science, University of Texas of the Permian Basin Associate Professor of Biology Doug Spence is a lifelong history buff.

This prompted him to pen a biography of Andrew Jackson Donelson, nephew of President Andrew Jackson, called “Andrew Jackson Donelson: Jacksonian and Unionist,” a book that was some 30 years in the making.

“I was one of those who could name all the presidents, even when I was in the third grade. Of course, in the third grade I only had to go as far as Lyndon Johnson. But for whatever reason, the president that interested me most then was Andrew Jackson. There was just something about Jackson. To this day, and he’s a very controversial figure, but love him or hate him Andrew Jackson is never dull,” Spence said.

Earning his bachelor’s degree from Houston Baptist University with a double major in biology and chemistry, Spence received his master’s and PhD from Texas A&M University in bioengineering. He arrived at UTPB 28 years ago.

While in graduate school at Texas A&M in the ‘80s, Spence said he decided to take his love of history and make a literary contribution to the field. In his reading, the person who kept cropping up in the Jacksonian or Antebellum era before the Civil War in the 1840s and 1850s and in Texas history, was Andrew Jackson Donelson.

“He’s one of these background figures in history,” Spence said.

But he seemed to have a knack for popping up where things were happening.

Andrew Jackson’s wife was a Donelson and Andrew Jackson Donelson was named after his uncle Andrew Jackson. Donelson’s father died when he was a small boy and he was raised at the Hermitage by his uncle Andrew and aunt Rachel Jackson.

“He went to West Point and graduated second in his class, … but during Jackson’s presidency he was Jackson’s presidential secretary,” Spence said.

Jackson’s wife Emily was the hostess at the white house because Rachel Jackson had died before Jackson became president.

“Donelson wound up building a political career of his own. He was one of the … most important colleagues that helped (James K.) Polk be elected president. He also served as charge d’affaires of the United States to the Republic of Texas who carried out the negotiations for annexation,” Spence said.

Donelson also was known to be good friends with Sam Houston and other leaders of the Republic of Texas. He served as the U.S. minister to Prussia just in time for the revolutions of 1848, which were a “major convulsion” in European political history, Spence said.

During the 1850s, Donelson was the editor of the Washington Union newspaper.

“In those days,” Spence said, “the major newspapers were political organizations. This was a Democratic newspaper.”

Donelson was a vice presidential candidate for the American Party in 1856, running with Millard Fillmore.

“He was a staunch unionist,” Spence said. “He followed in the footsteps of his uncle Andrew Jackson.”

Donelson lost two sons in the Civil War. Both of them fought for the Confederacy.

Spence said the process of writing “Andrew Jackson Donelson: Jacksonian and Unionist” has been long and slow because of his job. He is only able to travel in the summer when there are no classes. Additionally, he had to do a lot of his research in libraries because the internet didn’t exist yet.

The book is published by Vanderbilt University Press and is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and from Vanderbilt University Press.

“I knew it would be difficult, but it never occurred to me it would take me 30 years. Had I known to begin with it would take me 30 years to get it written and published, I probably wouldn’t have started in the first place. Not being able to see in the future has its advantages sometimes,” Spence said.

However, the finished product is worth it.

“It’s probably the closest thing you can have to holding your own baby in your hands. I’ve heard other authors compare publishing a book to having a baby. I guess it’s the next closest thing,” Spence said.

Still being a history lover despite his long labors, Spence said he’s jumped right into a second book on Andrew Jackson Donelson’s brother, Daniel Smith Donelson, a Confederate general. He said that biography is about 90 to 95 percent finished.

Spence said the second book has been a lot quicker and easier to write, mainly because it uses a lot of the same source material.

Dean of the College of Arts and Science Michael Zavada said students could take a lesson from Spence.

“With today’s concerns about getting students to finish college as fast as they can, and the fact that one in three students after they finish high school will never read a book again, we sometimes forget that a primary goal of higher education is to inspire a passion for lifelong learning. Many people misconstrue the PhD to be a degree in the field of philosophy or a specific field of study, when its general meaning is a ‘love of wisdom,’” Zavada said in an email.

“One of the unique characteristics of the American liberal arts education has been a tradition among the professorship and also as characteristic of people educated in the system, to not only excel in their chosen field, but other disciplines as well, and to do this for the sheer joy of learning. Dr. Spence exemplifies this ideal and reminds everyone that the joy of learning is one of the most valuable characteristics a person can acquire. My advice to students, be like Dr. Spence,” he added.

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